Ask Rick Tolman what he has achieved in 11 years as CEO for the National Corn Growers Association, and instead he will tell you what the NCGA has achieved. That is in character. Tolman, who came to NCGA with a reputation for strategic thinking and effective resource management at the U.S. Grains Council, shifts the talk to grower leadership as a defining strength that drives the corn growers’ successes.
“What’s unique is our culture of grassroots and state association involvement,” he says. “Our growers are the leaders on policy. They decide where the train should go. My job is to make sure the train is up and running and ready to make the trip.”
While Tolman sees his primary task as providing a staff that can carry out growers’ directions “whether I’m here or not,” NCGA grower-leaders give him credit for much more extensive contributions.
They say he’s committed, dedicated, even driven in pursuing NCGA’s goals. Several note his ability to provoke critical thinking and guide NCGA’s strategic-planning efforts.
Ron Litterer, a past president from Iowa, cites Tolman’s knowledge of the industry from a worldwide perspective, a quality that proved valuable immediately upon his arrival at NCGA.
“I was in my first two weeks at NCGA when StarLink occurred,” remembers Tolman. “Within my first three weeks, I was flying to Japan to reassure our key export customers.”
He admits to being surprised by the broad range of issues he found himself dealing with at NCGA: not only trade and farm policy and ethanol but biotechnology, industry relations, biodegradable plastics and more.
Juggling those issues was even more challenging because NCGA had just finished a complete reorganization. Members, officers, staff and state corn grower associations were all in the process of mastering the new structure – a process Tolman helped guide.
Fred Yoder, an Ohio past president, remembers that even in the heat of the biotechnology debate, Tolman stayed true to grower decision-making.
“I was chair of the biotechnology working group the first year Rick was CEO,” recounts Yoder. “We had a meeting with Monsanto, and I said, ‘Rick, what should we be saying here?’ And he said, ‘Well it is up to you; this is your organization. I am just here to support you.’”
Today, Tolman continues to assess where the demands will be and provide the resources NCGA’s leaders will need to respond.
“We’ve beefed up our legislative operation, and we’ve just added a staff person to track regulatory issues,” he says. “Regulatory issues are going to be more important – for example, you wouldn’t expect it, but child-labor laws are an issue right now.
“We have to be very alert, especially where farming intersects with environmental issues.”
He has three main issues currently on his radar screen: the evolving U.S.-China trade relationship, corn-sector productivity in a hungry world and the U.S. economy and federal budget.
The last topic brings him back to the power of grower leadership.
The budget is “the big shadow overhanging the things we need to do,” Tolman says. “For agriculture, I could put any three of our growers in a room, and they could balance the budget.”
Tolman graduated from Brigham Young University and earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University. Before joining NCGA, he conducted market research for Gehl Company, was marketing planning manager at International Harvester and executive director for the U.S. Grains Council. He was recognized as 2008 Agribusiness Leader of the Year by the National Agri-Marketing Association.